While Scotland is not necessarily known as a foodie destination, there is no doubt that some of its traditional dishes are recognized around the world. Who hasn’t heard of haggis or deep-fried Mars bars? Others are definitely a more local affair, and offer lots to discover and try.
Wherever I travel, I tend to try and sample as much of the local cuisine as possible, as each traditional dish tells you a little about the region, the people, and their history. In Scotland, surrounded on three sides by the sea, there is definitely a lot of fresh seafood around, but it is the typical Scottish food that I searched out, to more or less success.
Here are some of the typically Scottish foods and drinks you need to try when you find yourself in the northernmost country of the United Kingdom, for better or for worse. Be brave, and you will be rewarded.
Haggis is undoubtedly the most famous Scottish food item, maybe after whisky — see below — and it is the national dish of Scotland. Now, you have got to be brave: Haggis is made from minced sheep’s lung, heart, and liver mixed with chopped beef or lamb, oats, suet, and numerous spices, such as nutmeg, cinnamon, and coriander. The finely ground mixture is then wrapped in a sheep’s stomach and boiled. Still upright?
Having a vegetarian daughter, my stomach turns at the ingredients list, but, when in Scotland… And do you know what? It is really good. There are no chewy lumps or fatty meat; instead, the fine mince tastes nearly Christmassy, beautifully spiced, but not spicy, and very tasty indeed. I enjoyed it so much, I had it again, and would heartily recommend it to anybody. Just don’t think of the list of ingredients, that’s all.
Where To Try It: The Ardnamurchan Scottish Restaurant in Glasgow is a hugely popular restaurant in a contemporary setting, and the dishes are affordable, nicely presented, and really yummy.
2. Neeps And Tatties
If you are eating haggis, then you will also be eating neeps and tatties; they go together like fish and chips. What sounds exotic is simply mashed up swedes and/or turnips, called neeps, and potatoes, the tatties. Again, finely mashed, but not pureed, they are prepared with butter, salt, and pepper, and that is pretty much it. Simple, warming, hearty, and tasty. And, together with haggis, not a dish that will give your teeth a workout, but a perfect combination that is very enjoyable.
Where To Try It: I had them at the same place as the haggis, the Ardnamurchan in Glasgow, but you find them on every menu in Scotland as they are a staple food.
3. Cullen Skink
What sounds like a sulking lizard is indeed one of the tastiest soups in the world, and that is official, according to Taste Atlas, which scored the soup 4.8 out of 5. And I, for one, tend to agree. There is nothing better on a cold winter’s day than a steaming hot bowl of soup, unless you can get hold of a steaming hot bowl of Cullen Skink, that is. Made quite simply from milk, potatoes, leeks, and onions, with the magic ingredient of smoked haddock, the soup is creamy and, because of the fish, has a lovely smoked flavor to it. Originating from the northeastern fishing village of Cullen some 180 miles north of Edinburgh, smoking fish was a popular way of preserving a fresh catch and it makes for a nice, hearty dish.
Where To Try It: I ate it pretty much everywhere I found it, which is in most restaurants serving local dishes, but according to anybody in the know, it is the Rockpool Cafe in Cullen where they still follow the absolutely original and best recipe.
Ask anybody Scottish, and they come together over their love for Irn-Bru. This neon orange fizzy soda is famous but is rarely available beyond the Scottish borders. Personally, I hate carbonated drinks, and certainly any that glow in the dark, but in the name of research, I went for it. Tense and with a glass of water nearby to wash away the taste, I sipped, and I liked. Very sweet, very orange, but not as awful as Lucozade (my apologies, Lucozade makers), it has a taste that I cannot describe, but it certainly is not as harsh as it looks, or you’d expect. I would have it again on an occasion that I needed a sugary caffeine rush, but no coffee was at hand.
Where To Try It: I did my taste experiment in the lovely setting of the coffee shop inside the imposing Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum in Glasgow. Buy a can of the drink and try it. It is surprisingly good. Another surprise point to Scottish food and drink.
5. Deep-Fried Mars Bar
Okay, now if you think haggis is weird, then you have tried nothing yet. Some 20-odd years ago it went through the world press and TV that in Scotland they started to batter and deep fry that chocolate bar made from caramel and chocolate, the Mars bar. Why, I cannot be too sure, but even now, whenever you hear talk about eating in Scotland, the deep-fried Mars bar comes up.
I love chocolate, but I do not like Mars bars (my apologies, Mars Wrigley), but I had chocolate spring rolls before and they were so good, that, again in the name of research, I went for it. Honestly? It is one of the worst things I have ever tasted. I had two bites, just to confirm my first impression, and threw out the rest. That said, my husband found it greasy but not too bad. And for what it’s worth, he also likes Mars bars. So, by all means, try one.
Where To Try It: While any fish and chip shop in the Glasgow city center offers them, I cannot bring myself to recommend the place I got mine from.
Now, here we are coming to probably my favorite after haggis and Cullen Skink. This is a sweet treat served in a glass that is made up of layers of cream, oats, honey, and fresh raspberries with a dash of whisky. It is a dessert served on special occasions, such as Burns Night celebrations, when I first tasted it, and originates from the harvest festival, taking place after the harvest of the raspberries. It is absolutely scrumptious, light and healthy tasting, and so moreish that you might as well try and get hold of another one straight away.
Where To Try It: Head straight to the beautiful Café Royal in Edinburgh, where they also do the Macbeth Toastie, a toasted sandwich filled with haggis, smoked bacon, cheddar, and caramelized onions.
Stovies is a dish based on potatoes. Usually served in an individual baking dish, or portioned from a larger casserole dish, this recipe is an individual one, with every place preparing it slightly differently. Small diced potatoes are stewed slowly and prepared with onions, vegetables, and usually some kind of slow-cooked meat, or indeed a cold slice of meat on the side. Very wintery and warming, nearly stodgy, but good old comfort food to be sure. It is so warming that they serve it at the Edinburgh Christmas Market to enjoy with a glass of mulled wine. And that is pretty perfect.
Where To Try It: If you are in Glasgow instead of the Edinburgh Christmas Market, then head to the Curler’s Rest Pub near the Botanical Gardens.
You can’t talk about Scottish food and drink and not talk about whisky. It is the national drink, it is an important part of the country’s income, and it is, quite simply, the lifeblood of Scotland. Whisky distilling started, as did champagne making, in a monastery. What would we do without the old monks?! The name whisky derives from the old Gaelic expression, uisge beatha, and can be translated as “water of life,” not to be confused with the clear aquavit, the Scandinavian water of life.
Where To Try It: Wherever you find yourself in Scotland, there is whisky, and the taste differences are enormous. And the best way to find one you like is during a whisky tasting. The slightly touristy, but extensive and informative Scotch Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh will leave your head spinning for so many reasons.
9. Scottish Porridge
I am not a breakfast person normally, but when I have time and leisure, I love some freshly made porridge. Especially when it’s cold outside. Scottish porridge is made from oats that are ground, so it is a lot finer than most porridges around the world, and it makes for a creamy texture. It is not a traditionally Scottish dish as such, because many countries have porridge, but the way the oats are treated differs, so I thought I’d include it here.
Where To Try It: Many cafes offer you porridge on the breakfast menu. I enjoyed the porridge at Pep & Fodder at 11 Waterloo Place near Calton Hill in Edinburgh. Unpretentious, and budget-friendly, they are happy to top up your cinnamon or syrup as you work through your bowl of porridge.